In a rapidly evolving landscape, the traditional build of a leadoff hitter is hard to find in today’s game—the days of the Rickey Henderson-type leadoff hitter are long over.
Admittedly, I looked at my phone screen a bit cock-eyed when I read David Ross’ announcement that Kris Bryant would be the Cub’s leadoff hitter for the 2020 season… He is the closest thing to a five-tool player on their roster and surely belongs in the heart of their order.
The Cubs have notoriously tried 17 different players in the leadoff spot (i.e. Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo) since Dexter Fowler’s departure in 2016. Their experiment with Schwarber leading off ended in a dismal season for the outfielder. In the games that Schawrbo led off, the Cubs won just 26 games and lost 30. While his ability to hit the longball never left, he saw a slight dip in batting average in the leadoff spot during the 2019 season.
Kris Bryant, the leadoff hitter, could have made the Cubs a contender again. Without the virus’ impact on society as a whole, we might have seen this bold move pay off for the Cubbies.
In today’s game, there is a large emphasis placed on a player’s athleticism, and it is expected that most batters in a lineup have sufficient wheels. Concocting a carefully crafted batting order comes out of necessity in the wake of a hitting revolution. Metrics like exit velocity, WAR, and OPS have become so prevalent in today’s game, it has streamlined so many facets of the game. Teams need to adapt or die, which forces Darwinism to run its course.
Maximizing the most out of a given game from the jump is incredibly important, but it is also equally as important to have an explosive and productive back-end of the lineup. Having the compatibility and effectiveness in any combination of three batters can maximize a team’s ability to produce runs efficiently. If your most dynamic player is only seeing the batter’s box 4 times per game as opposed to 5, as insignificant as it sounds, it could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
In the wake of the now-infamous Mookie Betts trade, Boston is left without an outright leadoff hitter. The only person on the roster who has experience leading off is Andrew Benintendi, who notoriously was experimented with in the leadoff hole during the 2019 season. The Benintendi Experiment did not last for more than a few weeks even with Mookie on the roster; Benny is not “the guy.” He had a largely uninspiring 2019 campaign at the dish, posting career lows in BA, OBP, and OPS. When leading off, Benintendi hit .267 in the first half of the season. These statistics alone do not discredit his efforts, but he is not the sparkplug that belongs at the top of the lineup.
One player currently on the Red Sox comes to mind when thinking about those who could benefit from “top loading” the batting order.
Looking at Xander Bogaerts’ physique, one would correctly assume that he belongs in the heart of the order. His 6-foot, 1-inch frame is well-suited for hitting in the 2-5 holes in the lineup where it would be able to do the most damage by being sandwiched between great hitters.
When purely looking at his hitting capabilities, Bogaerts has the ability to get behind the ball and drive it to all parts of the field. He also displays plate discipline beyond his years; not the type of maturity one would expect from a 27-year-old.
Filling Mookie’s role is no easy task—he was 10th in the entire league in OBP with .391, ahead of some very big names. One of the players following Mookie at 13th in the league in OBP however, is our boy, Xander. Bogaerts posted a .384 OBP and saw lots of growth in his batting abilities. He even posted an OPS that was 14th in the league. Xander also has the slight speed advantage over Mookie, with Xander posing a 28.0 ft/sec as opposed to Mookie’s 27.9 ft/sec.
At any level, every ballplayer should be prepared to lead off an inning—even the not-so-fleet-of-foot DHs out there. Whoever leads off a game is no different. A leadoff batter’s approach could differ depending on the pitcher, as he could set the tone of the game either by jumping on a pitcher early in the count or working to wear the pitcher down via attrition. The one thing that remains a constant throughout all leadoff hitters, though, is the ability to work the count and get on base often.
“Top loading” lineups with a team’s best five-tool players will be the way of the future. Shifting players who typically belong in the heart of the lineup to the top of the order will become more prevalent in years to come.